Withdrawal Agreement: Legal Opinion

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:39 pm on 12th March 2019.

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Photo of Joanna Cherry Joanna Cherry Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice and Home Affairs), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 12:39 pm, 12th March 2019

I start by saying that I have respect and sympathy for the Attorney General. The role of the law officer is not easy, particularly when he or she is a party political appointment, but he must nevertheless from time to time burst his party’s political bubble in the interests of professional integrity and independence of advice. Make no mistake, that is what the Attorney General has done today.

Today, the emperor has no clothes; none at all—not even a codpiece. For all the yards of flannel in paragraphs 4 to 10 of the Attorney General’s legal opinion and in today’s statement, it is quite clear, as the shadow Attorney General said, from paragraph 19 of the legal opinion that the legal position previously outlined by the Attorney General remains the same. The measures therefore fall very short of what was demanded by the Brady amendment and very short of what was promised to those in the European Research Group, which I am sure will not have been lost upon them or their lawyers.

The withdrawal agreement has not been changed, and that the Attorney General should admit that that is so is not surprising given the weight of legal opinion about the measures overnight. Some Conservative Members will not take my legal opinion for it. I am unsure why, but perhaps they think that a lawyer who is a member of the SNP is not to be trusted. At all events, I am sure that they will put some weight on the opinion of my good friend Lord Anderson of Ipswich, the former Government independent reviewer of terrorism legislation. He provided a detailed opinion overnight—[Interruption.] I hear someone muttering from the Conservative Benches that he is being paid by the people’s vote campaign, but that person ought to be aware that it is the professional duty of any senior counsel to give an objective, dispassionate opinion. Perhaps the person muttering from a sedentary position should not transfer their own motives on to someone as honourable as Lord Anderson.

I will ask the Attorney General whether he agrees with me and with a number of Lord Anderson’s points. Lord Anderson says that the measures obtained by the Prime Minister

“do not allow the UK to terminate the backstop in the event that negotiations over its future relationship with the EU cannot be brought to a satisfactory conclusion”.

That is correct, and I am sure that the Attorney General will agree. Lord Anderson also says that the measures

“do not provide the UK with a right to terminate the backstop at a time of its choosing, or indeed at any time, without the agreement of the EU.”

Lord Anderson is right that there is no unilateral exit here. He then goes on to say:

“The furthest they go is to reiterate the possibility that the backstop might be suspended”— not got out of, but suspended—

“in extreme circumstances of bad faith on the part of the EU which” he says

“are highly unlikely to be demonstrated.

Lord Anderson also points out:

“This was already apparent from the Withdrawal Agreement, and had been acknowledged in the Attorney General’s previous legal advice.”

Does the Attorney General agree with all those points in Lord Anderson’s independent, impartial, objective opinion? Does he further agree that in fact nothing has changed and that the Prime Minister has yet again failed to deliver on what she has promised?